Essential Books for Writers – Three Uses of the Knife by David Mamet

…a one on one chat in a smokey bar with arguably the greatest contemporary dramatist around – a master of the craft of storytelling.

Welcome to the first in what I hope will be a long-running series.

I’m kicking this off by talking about what, for me, has been a major influence on my understanding of writing since I first read it, over ten years ago. Since then, I’ve lent, bought and not got back three copies. The one I have now is never being loaned out again.

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, David Mamet, is a man who seldom equivocates. He has been extremely vocal over the years with his views on writing, acting and, more recently, politics, delivering what have often been described as paper grenades which have brutalised herds of sacred cows. As the writer of plays such as Oleanna and Glengarry Glen Ross and films like Wag the Dog and Ronin, he’s established himself as a master and true force in the world of writing.

Three Uses of the Knife – is an outpouring onto the page of his ideas about dramaturgy, three-act structure, dramatisation and, most profoundly, the use and need for dramatic stories. This article is not so much a review as an explanation of why what is found inside this book may profoundly deepen your understanding of the craft.

I recently had a debate with someone who was telling me that three-act structure doesn’t exist.

It’s traditionally seen as the classic model which separates dramatic narratives into three parts, the Setup, the Confrontation and the Resolution. This chap said that three-act structure is actually four-act structure. To be fair, I don’t remember his exact arguments but it really came down to the idea that it was more convenient for him (and maybe others) to split the second act in two. A thing that he said changed the nature of the structure entirely.

As soon as I heard that, I realised he’d failed to understand the significance of three-act structure whatsoever – that it is the map for the protagonist’s journey of change through the narrative. Split it up in as many ways as you like and it’s still going to amount to exactly the same thing.

If you liked you could split the second act of Star Wars (which runs from Luke’s arrival at Mos Eisley to the escape with the plans for the Death Star) in two. You could say it splits at the point where they rescue Leia, but it doesn’t actually change anything about the story or, through it, Luke’s process of change.

It was when reading Three Uses of the Knife that I first started to become aware of this idea and how those deep level clamps and pivots, which are invisible to most readers, are, in fact, unavoidable. Stories take their form because they’re a reflection of how we experience change as people. They’re a distillation of everyday life and the way we reach for our own goals and overcome adversity.

That’s why Mamet is happy to give drama a purpose but I’ll leave that for him to explain in the book.

The style here really is no-nonsense. This can be quite easily seen in his choice of analogy for the three acts, which ultimately gives this book its title:

Huddie Ledbetter, also known as Leadbelly, said: You take a knife, you use it to cut the bread, so you’ll have strength to work; you use it to shave, so you’ll look nice for your lover; on discovering her with another, you use it to cut out her lying heart.

This is a good example of what to expect from this book. The analogies chosen by Mamet can, at times, seem indirect but they’re more about giving a fundamental and personal understanding rather than simply offering technical advice.

At around 80 pages Three Uses might seem underwhelming but, then, there isn’t a wasted word in the thing. It isn’t a writing manual by any means. It’s a one on one chat in a smokey bar with arguably the greatest contemporary dramatist around – a master of the craft of storytelling.

I was lucky enough to go to a college which had academic tutorials. Once a week I’d sit in front of a tutor and discuss an essay I’d written. The tutors never held back and I’d often have to run to the library afterwards to work out what they’d been saying.

That’s what this book is – a tutorial with David Mamet. It’s the kind of thing you’ll never be able to take in all at once but you’ll be happy to revisit from time to time and pick up the things you missed first, second, third and fourth time around.

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